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Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San [Photo © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.
22 Mar 2015

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Photos © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.


If Puccini’s aim was — in keeping with verismo ideology — to portray the grim reality of contemporary life then the story of Cio-Cio-San’s exploitation, abandonment and self-sacrifice must have seemed a fitting tale. John Luther Long’s eponymous short story — which since its 1904 publication has spawned many a Butterfly-derivation — was based on a real-life incident: here, then, was the opportunity for the composer to depict the catastrophic actualities of cultural and sexual exploitation amid human suffering, gritty pragmatism and stoic self-sacrifice in back-street Nagasaki.

However, Puccini was evidently more interested in verismo settings than its aesthetics and philosophies: perhaps the only ‘genuine’ verismo operas are Il Tabarro and Tosca, for even in La Bohème the emphasis is more on the captivating bohemian milieu than the sordid quotidian affairs of the common man and woman. The garrets of the nineteenth-century Quartier Latin may have posed as present-day normality but in fact they were just as remote and picturesque as the faraway harbour-shores of Nagasaki.

©BC20150317_Madama_Butterfly_RO_801 BRIAN JAGDE AS LIEUTENANT B.F. PINKERTON, KRISTINE OPOLAIS AS CIO-CIO-SAN (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER.pngBrian Jagde as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Thus, Madame Butterfly is less an exposure of racial, financial and sexual abuse than a tale of love, sacrifice and redemption — and one not so far from the ideals of German Romanticism. Puccini may have called Madame Butterfly a ‘tragedia giapponese’ but it is not Japanese in any naturalistic sense: indeed the French term Japonisme might be nearer to the mark, referring as it does to the mania for the East which followed the end of Japanese isolation from the West in 1854. In the pavilions of the world fairs held in Paris during the late-nineteenth century, the Occident discovered the Orient through displays of the latter’s art, plays and music — and it devoured what it saw.

This infatuation is thrillingly reflected in Christian Fenouillat’s subtle but penetrating set designs and the wildly glowing colours of Christophe Forey’s lighting scheme: Puccini’s orientalism is exotic mystery rather than naturalistic misery. So, Fenouillat presents us with a room whoseshoji screens decorously rise and slide to reveal glimpses of Nagasaki — a pale view of the hills — or an ornamental shūyū, the blue-pink mist which hazily bathes the ornamental garden making a fairy-tale of Butterfly’s entrance. These screens allow rays of yellow-green or orange light to slide across the set floor, emphasising the unfamiliar perspective of the world we view. It will not reveal all its secrets or admit interlopers: Kate Pinkerton appears first as a silhouette, ominous and alien, through the dividing screen. And, the flat backgrounds cut off figures and sakura trees at the edge of the frame; this is an asymmetrical world of juxtaposed angles, layers and colours. Japanese cherry blossom trees are traditionally associated with clouds, because of their weightless flowery mass, and when the ephemeral petals tumble to the floor at the end of Act 3, illumined by a ghostly moon-glow, the death of Butterfly’s airy dreams is painfully apparent.

All this beauty and symbolism might be mere superficial satisfaction for one’s sensibilities, if it were not for the dramatic insight and vocal distinction of Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who truly appreciates, and communicates, that Butterfly’s tragedy is a personal one not a cultural one. Opolais may not convince as an ingénue or a teenage Geisha: she is too tall and her voice too sophisticated and knowingly mature to encapsulate the girlish immaturities of a giggling fifteen-year-old. But, her Butterfly is a ‘real’ woman of disturbing integrity and resolution, and this steely determination is gradually revealed by Opolais to be an unwavering willpower and honesty which will eventually destroy both herself and Pinkerton.

©BC20150317_Madama_Butterfly_RO_695 GABRIELE VIVIANI AS SHARPLESS (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER.pngGabriele Viviani as Sharpless

Opolais’s spinto glistens like gossamer thread but has an underlying strength; she sang with such seductive lyricism that, for once, one might empathise with Pinkerton’s infatuation. Her voice is not huge, though, and there were some places where it was overshadowed by the orchestral fabric; but, in the end-of-Act 1 love duet Opolais used a powerful chest voice to convey the shockingly deep passion which lays beneath her docile purity and the demure civilities of her culture.

In Act 2 she laid bare Butterfly’s emotional unpredictability: her haughty sulkiness when admonished or guided by Suzuki; her youthful excitability which irrepressibly bursts out, interrupting Sharpless’s reading of Pinkerton’s letter; her fiery anger when the US consul dares to suggest that she may never see Pinkerton again. In a pre-production interview in the Daily Telegraph Opolais said of the role: ‘Just to sing it with a good voice is not enough, it asks tears from your soul. I am very emotional on stage and the music is so tender that I suffer for real when I am singing it.’ This was nowhere more evident than in ‘Un bel dì’ where the wistful honesty of her singing totally explicitly and uncompromisingly revealed her despair.

Leiser and Caurier manage to keep their production on the right side of sentimentality, but here it was Opolais who imbued it with true tragic authority. It was a pity then that her final death throes were exaggerated and unconvincing: Butterfly’s destiny has been foreshadowed, for example in her prostrate figure at the close of Act 1, and once the ornate tantō has done its fatal work, one might have hoped for a less melodramatic physical collapse to convey Butterfly’s ultimately destructive passivity.

Opolais is well-partnered by Brian Jagde’s Pinkerton. The American tenor’s interpretation of the Yankee Lieutenant as an insensitive young buck whose crime is carelessness rather than malice is convincing, even if it doesn’t allow for much emotional range. Jadge’s tenor is bright and powerful, and although there were a few over-reaching rasps in Act 1, his aria, ‘Addio fiorito asil’, was deeply moving, full of shame and sorrow.

The rest of the cast were solid but somewhat overshadowed by Opolais’s intensity. Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa was a feisty Suzuki, strong and rich of voice, and Jeremy White’s white-faced Bonze cursed chillingly. Gabriele Viviani made a fairly bland impact as Sharpless, but Carlo Bosi’s Goro was wily and snakily persistent and the Italian tenor grabbed his dramatic moments.

The single performer who matched Opolais’s fearless commitment was conductor Nicola Luisottiwho drew incredible incisive playing from the pit, alternating searing, fervent climaxes — the instrumental introduction did not waste any time in setting out Luisotti’s intentions — with moments of pristine tenderness. Together with Opolais, Luisotti conveyed an essential truth: that Butterfly’s tragedy is not caused by external forces of pillage and corruption but derives from within, from her own misplaced love.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Cio-Cio-San, Kristine Opolais; Pinkerton, Brian Jagde; Sharpless, Gabriele Viviani; Goro, Carlo Bosi; Suzuki, Enkelejda Shkosa; Bonze, Jeremy White; Yamadori, Yuriy Yurchuk; Imperial Commissioner Samuel Dale Johnson; Kate Pinkerton, Anush Hovhannisyan; Conductor, Nicola Luisotti; Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier; Set designs, Christian Fenouillat; Costume designs, Agostino Cavalca; Lighting design, Christophe Forey; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday 20th March 2015.

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